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Monday, November 21, 2011

The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb


Melanie Benjamin’s The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb completes my reading of the three P.T. Barnum/American Museum novels published between June 2010 and August 2011.  Mrs. Tom Thumb (July 2011), while being the least focused of the three on day-to-day life in Barnum’s American Museum, is, in many ways, the most intriguing of the three because of its focus on two of Barnum’s real life main attractions: Mr. and Mrs. General Tom Thumb.  For the record, the other two Barnum novels are: The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno by Ellen Bryson (June 2010) and Stacy Carlson’s Among the Wonderful (August 2011).

When she was born in 1841, no one expected that Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump would mature into a world famous young woman who would never reach three feet in height – nor that her younger sister was destined to be even smaller than Vinnie.  But, as much as the Bump sisters resembled each other physically, they could not have been any more temperamentally different.  Vinnie demanded to go to school with her everyone else; her sister was content to stay home with her mother.  Vinnie dreamed of seeing the world; her sister could barely imagine a world other than the one she knew within the confines of the Bump family farm.

Told in her own words, The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, is a chronology of the life of one of the bravest young women of her day.  Lavinia Warren, as she came to be known under P.T. Barnum’s guidance, fought the odds associated with her size and with her gender to become one of the biggest celebrities of the century.  Hers was a life of the highest triumph and the lowest personal grief imaginable, but what a life it was.

Lavinia Warren
As portrayed in the novel, General Tom Thumb, dubbed so by Barnum, is a rather child-like man barely taller than his 32-inch wife who learns to mimic the ways of those around him.  Because Barnum put him in show business when he was only five years old, and he had to pretend to be a young adult even then, Charles Stratton never had a childhood.  He learned his ways from Barnum and others with whom he worked and toured – even to mimicking Barnum’s physical mannerisms.  Whether or not Lavinia ever learned to love the little man is open to speculation.  What is not subject to question is that she saw marriage to Stratton as the key to the bank vault – and she was right.  The wedding of Charles Stratton to Lavinia Warren has, in fact, been called the nineteenth century’s equivalent of Diana’s marriage to Prince Charles.  It certainly made the pair wealthy, even by modern standards.

The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb is quite a tale, and Melanie Benjamin tells it well.  Readers cannot help but be intrigued by the unique relationships between Lavinia Warren and the two most important men in her life, General Tom Thumb and the boldest American “humbugger” of all time, Mr. P.T. Barnum.

I highly recommend all three of the Barnum novels but, if you only have time for one of them, this is probably your best choice.

Rated at: 5.0
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